New revelations come almost by the minute in the Trump-Russia affair. A reasonable observer might conclude that is all that is happening in the Trump administration. But even as those troubles fill news sites and cable TV, administration officials are quietly moving ahead on one of the president's top campaign promises: the construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Although it hasn't received much attention relative to the president's many problems, extensive planning for the wall is under way, officials are evaluating specific proposals, sites are being studied, and yes, there is money available to get going. The work is being done under President Trump's executive order of Jan. 25.
"The executive order calls on the authority in the Secure Fence Act for us to begin immediately," said a senior administration official who recently provided an extensive update on the state of the wall project. In March, U.S. Customs and Border Protection sent out a request for proposals for companies to bid on the construction of prototypes -- not little models to sit on someone's desk, but full-scale sections of proposed wall designs that will be put in place on the border. So far, Border Protection has received more than 100 proposals.
"We are evaluating what started out as a solicitation to industry and request for proposals -- 18 to 30 feet high, concrete, impenetrable, hard-to-scale, the correct aesthetics," the official said.
There are some important points to remember before going any further. First, there is no intention to build a wall to stretch the entire border, from San Diego, California, to Brownsville, Texas. In his campaign, the president made clear that the wall need not cover every mile of the border. Certainly, no expert who supports more barriers at the border believes it should, either.
And the wall does not always mean a wall. The Jan. 25 executive order defined "wall" as "a contiguous, physical wall or other similarly secure, contiguous and impassable physical barrier." Planners say that in practice, that will certainly mean extensive areas with an actual wall. But other areas might have the type of fencing outlined in the Secure Fence Act, or some other barrier yet to be designed.
And that leads to a third point: The border barrier will not look the same at all points along the border. The terrain of the border is different -- some parts are so imposing they don't need a barrier at all -- and officials plan to design walls and barriers that fit each area, rather than one long, unchanging structure.
Right now, officials are studying how many "buildable miles" will need a barrier. At the moment, planners believe that about 700 "buildable miles" of the border will require a wall or other barrier. That just happens to be about the same amount called for in the Secure Fence Act.
Does the government have that much land available? The answer is mostly yes. Remember, from the numbers cited above, that there are more than 650 miles along the border with something on them -- vehicle fence, simple pedestrian fence, whatever. That means the government has already gone through the land acquisition and approval process required to erect a barrier.
There's no doubt that hundreds of miles of truly impenetrable barriers would have a huge effect on illegal border crossings. Talk to some experts who favor tougher border enforcement, and they will say that even as few as 100 well-chosen miles of barrier would make a difference.
Once planners decide where to build, there will then be the question of what to build. If the decision is to build a wall, then the question is: a wall of what? Planners have decided that concrete will definitely be involved, even though it hasn't played much of a role in earlier barriers. Why concrete? "It's an interpretation of the vision," the senior administration official explained. By "vision," he meant it is a way to make Trump's oft-repeated promise of a "big, beautiful wall" a reality. Trump didn't mean a fence.
On the other hand, using concrete presents one obvious problem. Whatever barrier is built, Border Protection agents on the U.S. side need to be able to see through it. That's always been a requirement with earlier barriers. So now, officials are looking for creative ideas for a wall that will still allow them full sight of the Mexican side.
That touches on the most important consideration for planners. A wall isn't just a wall. It is a system -- a "smart wall," as they call it. It involves building a barrier with the monitoring technology to allow U.S. officials to be aware of people approaching; to be able to track them at all times; to have roads to move people around; the facilities to deal with the people who are apprehended; and more.
That was before Comey was sacked.
At this point, it's impossible to say what building a smart wall will cost, because officials haven't yet decided on a plan.
Republicans on the Hill argue that they got as much money in the recent spending bill as they could for the project, given that they had to work with Democrats to avoid a government shutdown and fund the government through Sept. 30. "We weren't going to get anything passed that said, quote-unquote, 'wall,'" noted one GOP staffer.
The next funding hurdle will come when Congress considers spending for 2018. Most House and Senate Democrats appear determined to stop a border barrier. They say it will be expensive and ineffective, while some Republicans believe Democrats oppose the wall mainly because they fear it will work.
After the recent spending bill passed, some opponents of the wall declared the project dead. But any victory dance right now is premature. Yes, it's certainly possible the wall won't be built. But it's also possible it will be built, or that significant parts of it will be built. The work is already under way.